On Sept. 3, 1814, the British Navy landed marines in Hampden, routed the local militia, and forced the crew of the USS Adams to burn their 28-gun frigate at the docks to prevent her capture. Irwin John Bevan’s watercolor “Burning of the Adams” depicts the event. Image courtesy of The Mariners’ Museum and Park, 1940.0552.000001 

Fifth of six parts

EASTPORT — July 11, 1814, was not a happy day to be an American soldier manning Fort Sullivan, perched high on a bluff behind what is now Shead High School, with sweeping views of the passages and islands of Passamaquoddy Bay.

For two years, this had been the front line between British North America and the young United States, but a quiet one. The 50 soldiers had whiled away the days watching small boats shuffle to and fro across the bay, many of them chock-full of contraband but representing no military threat to U.S. control of Eastport.

But on that day, the lookouts saw a horrifying sight: HMS Ramillies, a 74-gun ship of the line, came into view around the tip of Campobello Island, accompanied by three smaller warships and several transports bearing 1,000 British troops. As the tiny U.S. garrison readied its four working cannon, the invasion fleet anchored beneath the fort, guns and mortars trained above.

Resistance was futile. Maj. Perley Putnam surrendered his 76 men. British troops swarmed the town, took the troops into custody, seized the customs house and post office, raised the Union Jack over Fort Sullivan, and declared martial law. Within a few weeks, all of eastern Maine was under foreign occupation, and communities from Camden to York braced for the expected attack.

Maine is celebrating the bicentennial of statehood, but it was the War of 1812, and the British occupation of much of Maine, that drove Mainers to reclaim their independence from Massachusetts, which had been ruling it as an overseas colony since the 1650s. That experience – and Massachusetts’ lackluster response to the invasion– represented the final catalyst for separation, with lasting implications for the people of Maine.

A postcard image of an old powder house at Fort Sullivan in Eastport. Fort Sullivan was captured by the British during the War of 1812. Image courtesy of Special Collections, Raymond H. Fogler Library, DigitalCommons@UMaine


When President James Madison declared war on Britain in 1812, New Englanders from Greenwich, Connecticut, to Eastport were appalled. The conflict disrupted the region’s trade with London and the British Caribbean, and many Yankees felt the United States should be fighting Napoleon Bonaparte, not harassing his opponent.

Along the border itself, few were interested in fighting, either before the invasion or after, as residents had more in common with one another than with their leaders in Fredericton, Boston, Washington and London. When the town fathers of Calais announced they would have to cancel the 1812 July 4th fireworks display to comply with orders to conserve gunpowder, local lore goes, the people of neighboring St. Stephen, New Brunswick, loaned them the powder to allow the show to go on. For two years, local people carried on as if there was no war at all.

Sunday, Feb. 16 – Chapter 1: Dawnland
Sunday, Feb. 23 – Chapter II: Rivalry
Sunday, March 1 – Chapter III: Conquest
Sunday, March 8 – Chapter IV: Insurrection
Sunday, March 15 – Chapter V: Liberation
Sunday, March 22 – Chapter VI: Legacy

“There was considerable reluctance in on the part of the settlers to fight one another,” says historian John Reid, professor emeritus at St. Mary’s University in Halifax. “It was a borderland, so there was a lot of coming and going and a lot of economic, trade, and personal relationships at stake.”

War felt very real in the summer and fall of 1814, however, as British forces surged down the coast. They seized control of Machias, Winterport and Belfast, and rained deadly cannon fire on Orrington. They scattered local militia forces from a battlefield in the middle of Hampden, leaving three men dead and forcing the U.S. Navy to burn the 28-gun frigate USS Adams at the docks to prevent her capture.

British sailors, soldiers and marines looted Hampden and Bangor, set fire to a Biddeford shipyard and set up an impregnable 2,200-man garrison in Castine, where the base commander was appointed military governor over all of eastern Maine. Residents of Wiscasset expected the village “would be laid in ashes” at any moment, while thousands of militiamen rallied to defend Portland from the expected assault.

The USS Enterprise, commanded by Lt. William Burrows, defeated the HMS Boxer, led by Cmdr. Samuel Blyth, off Pemaquid Point during the War of 1812. Blyth and Burrows were both killed. When the wounded Burrows was given the dead British captain’s sword, he directed the sword be sent to Blyth’s family. He died shortly after, and they now rest side by side in Portland’s Eastern Cemetery. Illustration from Wikimedia

“The whole District of Maine is threatened by a raving foe,” Washington, D.C.’s leading newspaper lamented in October, “and scarcely a soldier of the U.S. troops is there to assist in repelling invasion, although thousands have been enlisted in that part of the country.”


With the federal government already bankrupted by the long war, Mainers and the White House alike looked to Massachusetts to take action to defend southern Maine and liberate the occupied zone.

Instead, authorities in Boston chose to do worse than nothing.

In the immediate aftermath, three state senators from the District of Maine asked their colleagues in the Massachusetts legislature to appoint a committee to plan the liberation of Down East Maine. They refused to even take up the motion. “I believe it is generally acknowledged by all well-informed people that we have no just claim to it,” Gov. Caleb Strong said of Eastport, while taking no action.

Fed up, President Madison nationalized part of the Massachusetts militia in November and ordered U.S. forces to retake Castine. But with the federal treasury empty and Strong refusing to contribute state funds, Gen. Henry Dearborn was forced to ask Boston bankers for a loan to finance the expedition. He was told they no longer had any capital, having loaned it to the British in Nova Scotia.

Meanwhile, Strong was carrying out secret diplomacy with Sir John Sherbrooke, governor of Nova Scotia and commander of British forces in the region, to see if he would provide military assistance should Massachusetts decide to secede from the United States, an episode that didn’t become public until the 20th century. Not surprising, then, that when Maine militia commander William King met with Strong to discuss an expedition to push British forces out of Maine, the war plans were promptly leaked to and published by Boston’s leading pro-Strong newspaper.

“It was another example of people in the core of Massachusetts and in Boston looking after their own interests, but not particularly taking care for the interests of people living in Maine,” says University of Virginia’s Alan Taylor, two-time Pulitzer Prize-wining historian and author of “The Civil War of 1812.”

This behavior shattered any remaining support for continued union with Massachusetts. A “crisis has arrived when the District of Maine ought to legislate itself,” Samuel Whiting, an influential Bangor attorney, urged King, who was emerging as Maine’s political leader. “Released from the thralldom of Boston influence, we would not suffer this Eastern section of the country to fall into insignificance; we would not suffer one third of our territory to be controlled by British laws –– if we can get no assistance let us make an effort to take care of ourselves.”


After the war ended in February 1815, Strong became the focus of hatred for his failure to defend Maine. Mainers ridiculed him as the “Hero of Castine,” and some proposed giving him a sword made of soft white pine to symbolize “our estimation of the prompt and efficient protection he afforded the District when invaded by the enemy.”

Worsening matters, in the aftermath of the war, the British refused to withdraw from Eastport, which they claimed was as British “as Northamptonshire.” For years, residents had to travel 15 miles to Dennysville to access a U.S. post office, while town merchants were forced to operate out of Lubec, just across the harbor. Boston made no protest, and the British didn’t finally withdraw until pressured to do so by Washington in June 1818.

A Broadside extolls people to vote for independence from Massachusetts in what would be the successful 1819 referendum. Broadsides were hung in public, accessible spaces, such as taverns and shop windows, and acted as a public notice and announcement, similar to how posters advertise events today. Image courtesy of the Pejepscot Historical Center

By then, it was too late to undo the damage. Maine politicians and editors clamored for statehood. “We are a mere province of our mother state, and our brethren in the West [consider] us an inferior race and totally incapable of self-government,” Portland’s Eastern Argus newspaper editorialized. The land barons of Boston had “impoverished the country … persecuted the people” and “driven many an honest man to seek livelihood in a distant land.”

Samuel Whiting appealed to his fellow Mainers to decide whether to place Maine “upon the elevated stand to which it is entitled” or “continue your present Colonial vassalage.”

With many in Massachusetts fearing Maine voters might help overthrow the states’s Federalist regime, the secessionists were able to gain approval for a new separation referendum to be added to the May 1816 ballot. Separation won by 62 percent to 38 percent, but fewer than half of eligible voters participated, depriving them of a clear-cut mandate.

Much of the ambivalence was due to the federal Coasting Law, an awkward 1789 act that forced vessels to stop and pay customs fees in every state they sailed past, except for those bordering on their own state. A northbound Georgia merchant captain could sail past South Carolina, for instance, but had to pass customs in every state thereafter. But as part of Massachusetts, shippers in Maine had a huge advantage: they could sail clear to New Jersey, because their state bordered on New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Connecticut and New York. But if Maine were to become independent, they would suddenly border only New Hampshire – a huge liability.

“There are no railroads. There are no decent roads for long-distance trade. Everything moved by water,” Taylor says. “You may not have liked the Great Proprietors or the established (Congregational) church, but for a lot of people it was not in their economic interest to separate.”


King, however, enlisted the help of his brother, U.S. Senator Rufus King of New York, to successfully lobby Congress to effectively repeal the law in March 1819. In July the referendum was repeated, and the separatists won, 71 percent to 29 percent, with 64 percent turnout.

Massachusetts acceded, with the assurance that it would receive title to half the public lands in Maine, and that the new state would honor its treaty obligations to the Passamaquoddy and Penobscot, including a trust fund and territory. “They became anxious to get rid of Maine after the war because its population was growing and much of its population voted for the (rival) Jeffersonian party,” Joshua Smith, a historian at the United States Merchant Marine Academy in King’s Point, New York, told the Press Herald in 2012. “The Maine tail was starting to wag the dog.”

Statehood required the approval of Congress, however, which presented an unexpected delay of several months as the measure became entangled in the rivalry between slave and free states. In early March 1820, these were resolved by the so-called Missouri Compromise, whereby Maine was admitted as a free state and Missouri as a slave one, thus maintaining the balance of power in the U.S. Senate. The act, passed March 15 – 200 years ago today – made Maine a state, with William King elected as its first governor.

But the colonial past would not be vanquished so easily.

Next Sunday: Legacy

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